Moscow's mojo

The Exile: sex, drugs and libel in the new Russia

Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi <em>Grove Press, 256pp

The gifts bestowed by freedom on 1990s Moscow - the teenage prostitutes from the provinces cheek by jowl in the subways; the courtyard shoot-outs; the barely credible excesses of poverty and wealth - were grist to the satirist's mill. The invasion of the foreign legion, moving between their western-style apartments, American diners and botched reform projects, added its own hue to the madness. Since 1997, Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi, the editors of the biweekly tabloid eXile, have been the expats' principal caricaturists, on a mission to "at least make it tough for them [the "corporate henchmen"] to maintain their public superiority complex while they went about their business of fucking up huge historical missions like the reform of post-Soviet Russia".

In this, they succeeded. Ames and Taibbi, two self-styled "American suburban yo-yos", have brought genuine inventiveness to the task of making prominent westerners and others look exceptionally stupid, extracting serious opinions from a former Moscow bureau chief of the World Bank about a fictional financial crash in Mongolia, or interesting the Gorbachev Foundation in sending their president to undertake a perestroika of the New York Jets. All this is then written up and served, over breakfast or lunch, at all the main expat points within the "Garden Ring".

But their role is more than clean mischief. Ames and Taibbi want to be the definers and chroniclers of what they affectionately call Moscow's "rape-camp mojo". It's a vibe that pulses from the pages of their clubbing guide, which lists your chances of getting beaten up or laid in any of the city's countless nefarious nightspots, as from their "Death Porn" section, which details the most gruesome crimes of the week. Exploitation, of Russia's economy and women, was at the heart of the "mojo". In their book, as in their paper, Ames and Taibbi opine with exaggerated concern about the first and revel in the second. Ames's misogynistic outpourings - and those of the National Bolshevik leader, Edward Limonov, a regular contributor - became an editorial speciality, while an infamous "rape" column by a phantom club reviewer took eXile further beyond the pale and higher still in the public consciousness.

Freedom of speech brought an understandable, if immeasurably harmful, wave of pulp to Russia, and it takes only a glance at a local provincial newspaper to understand the popularity of the pirate-video culture. Another more serious issue is why there should be a need for pulp among Moscow's affluent expatriates and tourists. Ames and Taibbi's paper, it seems, has always responded to the gap-year mentality that is characteristic of many visitors to Russia. It panders, with its very name, to the deliberate self- delusion that living there, in eXile, is somehow difficult and heroic, and that, therefore, anything goes.

With their book, Ames and Taibbi have tried to put themselves at the centre of the legend - which has been doing the rounds in Moscow since the crash in 1998 (when the exodus of foreigners began) - that the mid-1990s were an epoch of unprecedented freedom and degeneracy. But their messy rebel-narrative is no more than an assembly of strands often of little interest to the international audience - an entire chapter is dedicated to the virtues of speed, another to Michael Bass, a fourth-rate celebrity once regrettably prominent in the expat firmament. There are insights worth reading, such as Taibbi's deconstruction of western reporting out of Russia; and, on occasion, the boys can write. But they have little to say about Russia or Russians beyond the glitter of money and sex. Worse, with their aggressively self-conscious prose, the would-be anarchists fail to communicate the cherished "mojo". You are left wondering whether they really did have a good time with all their speed and compliant girls.

Oliver Ready is the books editor of the Moscow Times